Why Non-Resident Kolkatans Can Never Give Up The Pursuit Of The Perfect Chicken Roll

09/06/2016 3:57 PM IST | Updated 28/09/2016 5:13 PM IST
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Saptarshi Chakraborty

There are things that Kolkata doesn't prepare you for when you abandon the city. For example, momos can come with skin as thick as your towel, auto fares can't be below 10 rupees, 'tarka dal' exists only in a Bengali parallel universe and triangular parathas are comical, not essential.

The shock of these painful revelations, however, is mostly allayed for a new Kolkata migrant by the vague knowledge that, when your nightmares are full of vada pavs, you'll at least get a chicken roll to lull your tummy to sleep. Okay, that was slightly autobiographical. But excruciating research - if it's ever done - will show that a chicken roll is the best cure to homesickness for legions of Bengalis plagued by foods and rents no amount of Gelusil can help digest.

To put things in context - the chicken roll is a bit of a Ron Weasley in our lives. Not fawned over as much as the puchka, not a stunner like biryani alu, but indispensable, warm, reassuring and entirely huggable. Dates, low budget Puja tours, stomach liners before drinking binges, boredom killer, depression killer, chicken meal under 40 rupees - the roll has been so many things in our lives. I would totally hug it if I could stop myself from gobbling it down first.

To put things in context - the chicken roll is a bit of a Ron Weasley in our lives.

But I found out, and later checked with many others of my tribe, it's easier to find a mosquito which won't bite than find a roll, which will not make you go, 'ish, jaataa' at the first bite. 'Ish', before the Bhansalification of Bengali, also meant disgust. For example, Baba Sehgal songs, Delhi's summer, that suspicious crimped hair in your samosa, your colleague's smelly feet -- all this can be satisfactorily demolished with a hissy, long, 'ish'. 'Jaataa' means terrible and is added in situations of deep, lasting disappointment.

Sometime in May, four years back, I stood at the window of my Bandra guesthouse staring at a canary yellow Jaguar parked across the lane. I have known that feeling before - when life seems as pointless as congealed Maggi. And I know its fix. "Bhaiya, yahan pe roll milta hai (do you get rolls here?)" I ask the guesthouse caretaker.

"Haan, kya chahiye, paneer roll? (yes, do you want a paneer roll)"

"Ema, na na (omg, no)," I shriek.

"Sirf ek chicken roll," I conclude, revelling in the heartbreaking humility and smallness of my demand.

'Bhaiya' helpfully whips out a stack of shiny leaflets. "Bahut saare hai, dekh lo, kahaan se order karna hai (there are a bunch of them, see where you want to order from)," he says, mouthing the most reassuring words I have heard in my eight days in Mumbai.

The Bengali in me will die from a violently malfunctioning conscience if I order the 'supreme' variety - it costs Rs 265, an entire month's roll budget for us Bengalis.

Life's not so unfair, after all, I tell myself.

Roll place 1 has a chicken roll, a 'supreme' chicken roll and a 'special' roll. The Bengali in me will die from a violently malfunctioning conscience if I order the 'supreme' variety - it costs Rs 265, an entire month's roll budget for us Bengalis. Alleged roll place 2 also serves Lebanese wraps and falafel and hummus. The mother vociferously asks me to never trust multi-talented food places, the Jack of all trades, is never the master of one, she always warns. So out goes cosmopolitan roll joint from my list. Oh, roll place 3, looks promising. It has kebabs, butter chicken, Amritsari macchi and Mishti 'dhoi', but they are all distantly related isn't ? After all, chikken tikka is what should ideally go into a roll, should be an easy one to get. It's kind of reasonable too - at Rs 150, it's just slightly closer to Rs 40, than Rs 265 is.

chicken roll

The roll is delivered wrapped in a shiny aluminium foil - ah, the joys of upper class chicken rolls - and comes with two tiny bags of chutneys. Mint and possibly, a lime pickle. After transporting the blasphemous accompaniments to where they belong - the dustbin - I start peeling the shiny wrap, a newspaper spread carefully on my skirt to catch the flakes of fried flour that's going to fall on it. I have un-knotted the ends - no flake. Wait, what is this exceptionally sophisticated roll? Filled with dread, I clumsily take the wrapper off.

Oh. My. God. What is this thing inside a rumali roti? Why are its ends bunched up like a paashbalish (a bolster)? And what is that greenish thing inside, have rolls started to grow veins too? Of course not. It is the godforsaken green mint chutney. A roti roll with a mint-coriander chutney. ISH.

Pratikshit, a lawyer friend, who has lived in several cities and is now braving Bangalore, has a thumb rule I didn't know of. He starts speaking to the order-taker in Bengali.

Pratikshit, a lawyer friend, who has lived in several cities and is now braving Bangalore, has a thumb rule I didn't know of. He starts speaking to the order-taker in Bengali. "If he gets it, I order. If he doesn't, I don't waste my time at all," he tells me. You may accuse him of being culturally blinkered, but what about the insensitivity shown while handing over the most un-roll-like 'roll' to a starving Bengali?

I eventually found a familiar roll place in Mumbai, just enough to not horrify me much. And I suspect I never moved from the house in four years, because of that shop across the road.

Two months back, following the first few outings in Delhi, an old friend suggested we get rolls and beer. Oh this is Delhi, nobody complains about being unfed Bengalis here. They know their rolls. "Let's," I quip cheerily, following her to the far end of a market near her house in East of Kailash. I don't see too many roll-ey things on this shack. Maybe, he is saving them from Delhi's pollution somewhere. And then, he starts making rotis frantically, letting a yellow curry bubble and froth on the stove beside him. Deja vu. This roll disaster is a rite of passage for settling down in new cities, I tell myself.

After exploring more cosmopolitan parts of the city, I quietly find a house in its Bengali ghetto. Mostly, I am excited at the sight of chhobra (dried gourds used as really harsh, terrifying loofahs) and bori (dried little dumplings made from dal paste) in the shops nearby. And I am ready to murder if they get the roll wrong here. I choose a shop with my city's name in it. The roll arrives, the paratha is nice and flaky, it is healthier looking that its Mumbai cousins.... AND it has pieces of capsicum in it. Kolkata rolls don't do capsicum, thankyouverymuch. How dare they, I crib, picking the pieces of capsicum out with a fork.

That roll - crossbred with mint chutney, capsicum, rotis, fried onions and such atrocities - stands for every difficult choice we have had to make.

The roll, for the non-residential Bengali, is a unflinching reminder of the hardships of his/her life. That roll - crossbred with mint chutney, capsicum, rotis, fried onions and such atrocities - stands for every difficult choice we have had to make. *cue to play 'Yeh kya hua'*

Here we are, paying thrice the price of a Kolkata roll for one, pompous interloper. My father's heart patient friend used to have roti roll - yes, we have roti rolls only when we are sure that a real thing will kill us. Imagine paying 200 rupees for it. That's like saying one should be okay with Rajinikanth being replaced with Himesh Reshamiya in films. Capsicum, really?

This complicated relationship with rolls, I have realised, mirrors my complicated relationship with my home, Kolkata. I can't have it, I can't let go either. So I trundle from chicken rolls with beetroot in them to chicken rolls served with mayo dips, chicken rolls with soggy parathas to chicken rolls that trouble my conscience, stomach and wallet.

My mother sums up how Kolkata... sorry, she, feels about my travails: "Besh hoeche. (serves you right)."

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